Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Column 100 - Polemics

Last Wednesday in a guest opinion column Syd Bekowich took both Jim Clark and me to task for our last "face-off" columns on the Gonzales matter. Specifically, he accuses Jim of vindicating Gonzales and me of a "virulent" (extremely poisonous or venomous; full of malice; objectionably harsh or strong) attack on the Bush Administration. He concludes by accusing both Jim and me of "dogmatic belief that led to burning people on the stake." In Sunday's Letters, Jane Bekowich, his wife, quotes from Ralph Nader and asks if Jim and I are "trying to make us believe in your points of view or…inviting us to think through the issues?"


Both the Bekowiches raise valid issues but, I think, are unclear on the nature of opinion columns in general and the "face-off" in particular. Given the choices Mrs. Bekowich offers, I would opt for the second – to invite people to think is what I've tried to one way or another through my career as a writer and educator. I certainly do not expect an occasional 700 word column will make anyone believe in my point of view, and I don't think my point of view is something deserving of belief, particularly given that it changes as I get older and learn more.


That said, there is more than one way to (metaphor alert) skin a cat. Polemics (aggressive debate, attack on or refutation of the opinions or principles of another) is a method of argument that goes back to at least the 17th Century, and is not dissimilar from Mr. Bekowich's own writing in his article. The opinions expressed by Jim and me in our columns are, as they say, our own, and we believe them. I believe, for example, that the import of l'affaire Gonzales goes way beyond the firing of eight US Attorneys and, along with Scooter Libby, the Iraq War, etc., etc., goes to the heart of a Presidency that is rotten to the core with egoism, greed, and disregard for the Constitution. Therefore my column was, in my view, very much about Gonzales as was Jim's. Do I invite people to think? Yes – to think beyond the surface issues to the root of how this Administration is selling this country's founding principles and our place in the world down the river.


Do I expect to convince anyone? No, sadly, I don't. Forget the Bush Administration, let's look at a local issue. I attended parts of the thirteen hour public hearing on beach access last Monday and was less than surprised to hear so many people that are so convinced of the rightness of their position and the rightness of their facts that they are, in my view, prepared to sacrifice what they say they hold most dear rather than compromise. It seems that no matter which way the Board decides, one side of the argument or the other will sue. If they sue, it at least opens the possibility, maybe the probability, that the courts will order the beaches opened to all, and everybody loses. Talk about the Charge of the Light Brigade.


And what is more dismaying is how sure everyone is of their "facts." People who spoke to me were absolutely certain that if we open the beaches to the 400 properties that do not now have access, that will mean we have opened them to the whole world. Not true. Others were certain that we could not keep the beaches from being opened to the planned timeshares and expansions of some of the Crystal Bay casinos. Not true. The "fact" that has the most currency and supposed certainty is that "properties in Incline are worth on average $50,000 more than those in Crystal Bay, and the difference is beach access." Maybe, maybe not, but no one has, to my knowledge, shown one bit of evidence that supports this claim.


So, Mr. and Mrs. Bekowich: Am I inviting people to think through my polemics? I sincerely hope so. Do I expect to convince anyone? No, and I'm not so arrogantly certain that my point of view is right that I even want to. Are polemics the only way to get people to think? No, it's just the method that short newspaper columns lend themselves to. If you want more reasoned dialogue, join the program on Jewish-Christian relations that Father Jim Beebe and I will be doing starting in June – you'll get a whole different approach.

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